The Recipe for a Shooter

On June 14th, 2017, James T. Hodgkinson walked into a baseball field where the Republican congressional baseball team was practicing and opened fire.  In the end 6 people had been injured and the shooter was killed by law enforcement on the scene in a shootout.  It should be no surprise that this is a situation that can easily be made political.  This was not a random act of terrorism.  The intent was to attack members of the GOP, and the shooter knew who would be at the baseball diamond that day, and the political views of this shooter were that of a “liberal”.

Given the growing unreasonableness on the left, such as the suppression of free speech on university campuses and even outbreaks of violence, it might be easy to say that conservatives are under attack by liberals and that we must increasingly become concerned about liberals.  If we look at the trends of mass shootings over the past 10 years I think we can easily see that this is not a partisan problem.  This is just another of many mass shootings in this country.  Another act of terror of the many that go through our news cycle, where nothing gets done.  But if we want to look at direct response to shootings that were politically based, when Gabby Giffords was shot, nothing was done legislatively because of that incident so it doesn’t seem likely anything will change now.  However, this administration hasn’t been terribly predictable so who knows?

When the name of the shooter was identified, knowing that he shot at Republican politicians, I was immediately interested in who the man was, because I was worried that his political views would be on the democratic side and that in the face of our current administration this might spell trouble for other liberals.  I imagine it is similar to the feeling a good law abiding Muslim must feel when a shooting happens.  Hoping the shooter isn’t a follower of Islam.  My Google search brought me to his Facebook profile.  This was literally a minute after his name had been released by the news.  I immediately saw that he was a Bernie supporter and was anti-Trump and naturally I groaned.  Several posts were public as is typical on any profile that shares stories.  What happened next was something I did not expect.  People began commenting on those posts.  Within a minute, hundreds of comments had been made with the larger proportion of those comments being insults hurled at the shooter.  The ugliness of humanity laid bare before me, and it was painful to see watch some meaningless rage.  One might argue that had this rage been directed to the actual shooter, maybe we could somehow have sympathy for such actions, but the shooter was dead.  The only people that could possible see this was family.  The anger could only hurt people who were only guilty of knowing the shooter.  No information about his family supporting him had been reported.  He could have been divorced, estranged, hated by them.  Perhaps they knew the man he once was and were simply saddened by the whole situation.  They were perhaps as appalled as anyone else at what Mr. Hodgkinson had done, and were simply grieving at the death of a man they thought they knew, or once knew.  I don’t understand people.  Unless a shooter actually killed somebody that I loved, I can’t imagine myself feeling enough rage to do the equivalent of “spitting on his grave”.

But I then reflected on my initial reactions to the shooting.  They were none too virtuous either.  Worried about how my “group” might be perceived in the future.  And yes even the thought of the irony of Republicans against gun laws, paying some penance for their views floated through my brain.  I am not proud of it, but perhaps this is what we’ve become in a society full of these incidents.  Of course, it’s also natural to have such thoughts, but what actions you take are, in the end, more important.  Despite my thoughts I did not get angry and lash out at anybody.  No shame or mocking.  This is a serious and sad incident and that is the most important position we should take on this matter. And as I saw comment after comment pour out I knew there was something important to be learned here, and wanted to take a few days to collect some thoughts and see what that might be.  I am not sure I’ve completely figured it out, but unfortunately I can’t help but worry that things aren’t going to get better here in the U.S. anytime soon.

CNN laid out quite distinctly all his liberal viewpoints, and that he was anti-GOP, and frustrated by the corruption and income inequality in this country.  The entire laundry list describes most people I know in my life who would never do something like this.  And yes, of course you never know, but I can at least say that probabilistically 99% of the people I know will not do something like this.  When we say that shooters like Dylann Roof are racist and that’s why he did what he did, or that Mr. Hodgkinson was a liberal or Bernie supporter and that’s why he did what he did, is this a fair thing to say?  I don’t believe so.  It ignores the many people who share similar views but don’t do these types of things.  We know John Lennon’s shooter was inspired by Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, but we know that millions of schoolchildren have read the book and certainly had no murderous thoughts because of the book.  The first thing that we have to be honest about, if we truly hope to lessen violent crimes like this in our culture, is that people who do these kinds of things are the confluence of more than one factor.  For any one behavior or trait, or any one environmental influence that you find in the shooter, you will find no solution to what makes somebody do this.  In the population of people that represent any one behavior or influence you will find far more non-killers than killers.

I should point out that there is one trait that all these acts of terrorism have in common.  The killer is male.  Yet of course we will still find far more males who aren’t killers, but it should at least make us ponder, what is it about being male through nature or nurture that increases the odds that they will become a perpetrator of these types of mass shootings?

One of the main points to come out about the shooter is his domestic abuse charge.  Why would someone like this be able to legally own firearms?  I’d like to look at this from two perspectives.  On one hand, it’s easy for everyone to get up in arms about a domestic abuser having a gun, given how often women are the target of incidents with firearms, this should be a no-brainer.  And maybe it is, although there are apparently some loopholes as discussed in the Slate article I just linked, but here is the problem:  he was never convicted.  This matters.  It must.  If we simply start denying people rights based on charges, then the rule of law has no value.

On the other hand, women know all too well about this kind of abuse.  It is very difficult to get a conviction for domestic violence.  What happens if your abuser threatens worse if you report them?  What happens if you do report them thinking, well they will be behind bars so I’ll be okay.  But what happens if you report it, but the cop doesn’t take you seriously?  Or the justice system fails you?  In reading about Mr. Hodgkinson’s domestic abuse case (it was against a daughter and a friend of the daughter), the case seemed a bit strange.  Though charged, he was never convicted because the victims never appeared in court?  Why would this be?  Perhaps they knew his temper.  Perhaps he threatened them. These are all likely scenarios and so the question then becomes, how do we deal with this type of person.  If we believe that evidence is still necessary for conviction, how do we get more people to come forward about their abusers?  How do we protect those victims adequately during and after their case, win or lose?  This is a problem we’ve been trying to tackle for years and there has been some progress, but not enough.  The progress that has been made has been a result of the rise of feminism.  Yes you may actually have to become a feminist if you want to make the situation better for those who experience domestic abuse.  And just because I am sure somebody reading this might say men are the victims of domestic abuse too, I shall freely admit that, yes, this is true.  But that doesn’t mean believing in gender equality is going to make you forget about male victims.  In fact, fighting gender stereotypes that oppress women actually makes things better for men.  Narrow definitions of masculinity and femininity also play into why a lot of men don’t get believed when they say they are victims of abuse.

Finally, we can’t ignore the role mental health plays when it comes to these types of incidences.  In reading about the shooter, beyond the domestic violence incidences, it is clear that he has a history of anger problems.  Anger has been linked recently to gun violence (link is an article that links to the peer-reviewed study but is only the abstract).  From the article:

“Swanson believes that it could be more effective to, instead of looking at mental health history, look at a prospective gun buyer’s record of misdemeanor convictions that could indicate impulsive, explosive and violent behavior.”

The paper also has a somewhat alarming graphic about men who experience excessive anger and gun ownership.

This is only one study and hopefully more research will be done in this area.  It seems also relevant then to ask, where does the shooter’s anger stem from?  Something in his childhood?  Is it some chemical imbalance in his body?  Is too much anger a mental health issue?  I would say yes, but there are a lot of people out there who get angry.  Like many things, any emotional reaction you find exists on a spectrum among people.  We could easily find someone out there who has anger problems but not quite as much as Mr. Hodgkinson, and some people with a little more.  Where do we draw the line and say, “this amount of anger is unhealthy, this amount of anger is healthy?”  And isn’t it more on how we act on that anger?  The study points again to convictions, but if there are none what then? How else might we learn about anger issues?  There are still stigmas for receiving treatment for any type of emotional struggle we are going through are still strong, especially for men.  In our society being aggressive and angry is valued for a man.  Such stereotypes imply that if you were to get help you would be seen as weak and less masculine.  Also, many people think of mental illness as only some condition you are born with or as something serious like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or dementia.  Things like anxiety, depression, anger are things people think we should always be able to control.  Unfortunately, this is not the case and excessive bouts of these things, even if it is temporary within your lifetime can lead to some pretty unhealthy outcomes.

So far, I don’t think I’ve said much new, but I guess one of the other facets of this incidents that inspired me to write this post was to look at the political activism of Mr. Hodgkinson.  Here is a person who has been active politically for some time.  He was a local business owner, was constantly engaged in various political causes.  Signing petitions, getting others to sign.  He was wrote opinion pieces to his local paper.  He volunteered for political campaigns.  Despite his anger problems, here is a man who, at least for a solid portion of his life, tried to solve the problems in society through engagement with people and the system on a non-violent platform.  I’ll quote once again from Sam Harris, because I think these words are very poignant here “…all we have is conversation…you have conversation and violence.  That’s how we can influence one another.  When things really matter and words are insufficient, people show up with guns. That’s the way things are.”  The end of Mr. Hodgkinson’s life are indicative of a man who was suffering mentally.  He was living out of a van, he looked like he was homeless.  Had sold most of his things just to move to D.C.  These aren’t the normal decisions someone makes and at the age of 66, it seems likely that there was at least some brain deterioration going on.  But here was a man who believed strongly about the world not being right, and he wanted to make it right.  And for many years he engaged in that activity non-violently.  Maybe he wasn’t the best representative for his cause, but he also wasn’t wrong.  There has been growing income inequality, the government is corrupt and colluding with the top 1%, and poverty increases in this country.  These are good things to get angry about.  Here is a man who tried for much of his life to use words, and I couldn’t help but thinking of the Sam Harris quote.  The causes the shooter was fighting for really matter, for many of us it feels like words ARE insufficient, and here we have someone showing up with a gun.

I am not trying to make this man seem like some sort of hero, but it made me wonder, given that this was clearly an attack on a political party, what is the difference between a terrorist and a revolutionary?  Numbers and organization?  I think the collective population, regardless of their beliefs, can feel helpless as words seem ineffectual in influencing change.  There are so many people in this world and the weight of it is enormous given the rate we can receive information about all the terrible things happening in it.  It’s more weight than our evolution prepared us for, and as one person it can easily feel like the only way to make an impact in it is to really get noticed.  And violence gets you noticed.  Mr. Hodgkinson has far more people thinking about him then he ever did being involved in politics throughout his life.  So when you have anger issues, problems with gun laws, problems with domestic abuse, a patriarchal society, a corrupt government that doesn’t respond to the people, increasing poverty, how many more people like Mr. Hodgkinson will pop out of the woodwork?  Can we stop them all?  Perhaps this is a commonality among all of these types of shooters.  A desire to be impactful in a world that feels unchangeable or a world that is changing with the feeling that it’s leaving you behind.  Either way, the amount of women doing these things is so negligible that it seems worth asking the question why men seem more susceptible to this type of behavior.

There are no easy answers here, and it’s time we stopped pretending there were.  One’s politics and religion certainly play a role, but so many other things do as well.  Let’s not aim for simple correlations and blame that solve nothing.  We know there are societies where this isn’t as big of a problem.  We are NOT helpless when we work together to build something better.  Change, however, does not happen overnight.  It takes patience and perseverance.  I still hold hope that we can find that change through conversation instead of violence, but I won’t lie and say that a worry that violence will continue to rise grows in the back of my mind.  As I think about all those people hurling out rage on Mr. Hodgkinson’s Facebook page, I wonder which angry person is the next to become violent.  Which one of those angry people has a gun, and with the right confluence of factors is the next one to use it.  For all my talk about conversation, I worry that not enough people are listening anymore.

Listening to the Blues

The current election has shifted a lot of attention away from the issue of police violence, but in searching through some of Sam Harris’ podcasts I found an episode that I found to be very very engaging.  If you want to get the perspective from a well-educated, well-trained police officer (Scott Reitz). I highly recommend listening to this podcast (Episode 25 of Waking up with Sam Harris). I felt it was important to hear this side of things.  I am a big supporter of the black lives matter movement as well, and my goal here isn’t to delegitimatize what is a very legitimate movement, but if we are also in the business of solving problems we need to hear from police officers, and we need to understand what problems they see.

Most people I know are even-minded about the issue.  They know most cops are good people.  They recognize that police are an important part of our society, and they don’t want to see police die.  They also know that there are bad cops, and there are systematic problems with the justice system that need to be addressed.

He raised a number of I think important issues about cops that I found very information.  For instance he said that the difference between the minimum proficiency requirement that cops need to have, and what a good cop needs to have are far apart.  But there is no training you can take for better shooting skills, or better hand to hand combat skills, unless you do it on your own time and own money.  He talked about why cops often fire so many shots at a target.  It’s simply because the hit rate is only at like 13%.  They are trained to take many shots at a subject.  There have been also many changes on how police do their job that have made it harder.  The choke hold for instance which killed Eric Garner, was outlawed, and perhaps for good reason given how it might have impacted somebody with certain health issues.  Garner being no exception.  However, what Mr. Reitz said was that the removal of a cops ability to use this method, took away a main method of incapacitation often used previously.  He also talked about how often tasers and other incapacitation method’s fail.  It was mentioned how recruitment standards have fallen greatly in who they accept.  When he first became an officer in the 70’s he said it was typical for police officers to have university degrees.  This is no longer the case, so standards are being lowered in terms of who they accept.   He was also agreeable to the idea that there are just a lot of cops who shouldn’t be cops.

There were a couple of places I disagreed with Mr. Reitz in the podcast and I wanted to discuss in a little more detail.  At around the 50 minute mark they discuss the topic of “back talk to officers, disrespect, how you should deal with illegal actions by a police officer”.  Mr. Reitz’s advice is that you don’t know the kind of day or week an officer has had.  They see the darker side of society, they often work long hours, and starting off your conversation with a police officer in a combative way, even verbally is a recipe for escalating the situation.  I am not sure that I necessarily disagree with this advice.  But what I started thinking was the following:

  • Nobody likes being treated like a criminal if they’ve done nothing wrong.  Nobody likes having their rights violated even if they have.  Nobody deserves to be shot just for a traffic violation.  I guess in the end, it’s not a reasonable excuse to me that the cop is overworked, or that he’s had a bad week or day that I am somehow asking for abuse by not being as passive and compliant as possible.  That’s victim blaming, and I can agree that to some degree cops are also victims of a system that isn’t giving them the training or the workload to reduce their stress levels.
  • Following from that, why is it not on the cop to think that maybe this person is also having a bad day or week? We are usually not going to be in the best of moods when we are pulled over, but if this is just a small bad incident in a line of bigger ones our attitude may not be great either.  Isn’t possible that a black person might just have felt racially profiled one too many times in his or her life, that they are in a bad mood?  When two people who are having a bad day meet. Right and wrong still matter.  The cop has as much responsibility to act right as the person does.  I think that, and Mr. Reitz seems to argue this at times, is that we are probably better off recognizing the reality that cops face, and that most of them aren’t particularly well-trained, and don’t necessarily have a lot of experience.  Sometimes you do have to be smart over being right.
  • Finally and most importantly, the idea that an officers wrong actions can be rectified after the fact, is not necessarily a guarantee. This is a big part of the frustration expressed by the Black Lives Matters movement.  The wrong actions of the cop, are supported by other cops, and are supported by judges.  In many criminal cases people can’t afford lawyers and they are often bullied into accepting a plea bargain by an overworked public defender and prosecution.  So there is frustration here by many.  They’ve seen what has happened to people they know, especially those with less financial means, and for many, even though they may be putting their very lives in danger by standing up to a cop, don’t have faith in the rest of the system to protect them.  I think we have to recognize this reality as well.

Another area they talked about was gun control.  Sam Harris I think tried to get him out of the practical side of things and just look more at ethics, but I suspect Mr. Reitz is extremely pragmatic, because I think you have to be in his line of work.  As I’ve argued before I think that the love of guns here is something that you have to accept to be in the U.S., but that we can try to fight for a society where we don’t them as much.  Anyway, Mr. Reitz supports the ownership of guns for home protection, but is less than enthusiastic about open carry or conceal carry.  I would expect most cops feel the same way.  In regards to personal protection, I can’t argue in some ways with the idea that a gun is an equalizer.  There are very bad people out there, and they are far meaner and stronger, and having that gun, just in case, is a practical solution to the problem.  Mr. Reitz seemed to take it as a given, however, that those of us in positions where we might be worried about the worst, would still see owning a gun as the only solution.  I know many people who have been victims of crimes, but not all of them seek guns after.  When you come from a place with very few guns, or where it’s more difficult to get one, even when bad situations do happen, guns aren’t the first thing we think of to be safe.  I think that it’s a very American attitude to think that a gun is the only solution.  And the type of violent crime of a complete stranger coming into your home to do unspeakable things to you and your family, while possible, is rare compared to people being victims of homicide or rape by people they know.  I guess it raises the ethical question of: How far do we go to let people feel safe, knowing that a very small percentage of those people would actually be victims in a situation they could have stopped with gun and knowing that the large amount of guns it keeps in society makes more gun violence possible?

I found Mr. Reitz to be quite reasonable and well-informed overall.  He believes that guns should be in lockers and only for hunting or home protection.  Because he also accepts the reality that few people are likely to get the training they need to be able to use a firearm well, and to have practiced shooting targets, and to store and care for it properly.

In the end it was nice to listen to a conversation that was substantive in which the right things were being discussed.  So often on this very important issue we don’t get to have this conversation, because it immediately turns into things like “Cops are heroes!” or “Banning all guns is against the second amendment!”  Imagine if we could always have such thoughtful conversations, we might be able to solve problems that might meet the concerns of both Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter.

In the end I really appreciated Mr. Reitz’ perspective.  I imagine it is generally impossible not to be impacted when your entire career has been dealing with hard cases and the worst of people, even if it’s just a small percentage of the population.  It’s great that he has remained even-minded and thoughtful about his own job.  I really can’t imagine how stressful it is.  In a way we have perhaps made strides in more sensible policing from a policy point of view, but I think when you want to put more public safety and compassion into policing (which is the right thing) that does impact its structure, and what type of resources we have to put in.  To make it work we have to support better training, better mental health support, higher qualifications.  An acquaintance of mine here, when I talked about the attack on public education, said it’s not much better for the police either.  Nobody wants to pay taxes, nobody wants to support the institutions that make for a better society.  Mr. Reitz summed up his thoughts on policing today by the following quote:

“Most police officers out there feel overwhelmed with the demands on them…[we’re saying to them] ‘I want you to hazard your life, but I want you to be really careful in defending yourself’….it’s hard”.

If you have time give the whole thing a listen.  If not, keep trying to have good conversations about this, because it is important.

Suburban Excitement

Last Thursday night, close to midnight we had more adventure than we would want in our neighborhood.  Basically about 6 police officers, wearing Kevlar and holding rifles descended on our neighbors.  I am not sure exactly everything that was happening but basically what happened was that the neighbor (whose wife and 2 children were thankfully not at home) was quite drunk and for some unknown reason took his rifle and just laid it down on the sidewalk in front of the house.  Two doors over a mother saw the gun lying there and rightly called the police.  It’s not clear whether she told the guy that she called the police or not, but when the police arrived the gun was no longer on the sidewalk.  One police officer began yelling very loudly telling the guy to come out of the house with his hands up, when the guy came out, he apparently wasn’t listening right away.  Again in as loud and deep a voice as man can shout he was told that he did not do what he was asked right away, he would be shot.  It appears that guy had moved the gun so that it was hiding behind the banister on his front porch.  So I am not sure if he picked up the gun at some point, but there was a lot of yelling, there were officers at different points on the street pointing their guns.  I saw the guy walk down his steps to the sidewalk with his hands up and then 3 officer tackled him immediately (and roughly) and while on top of him yelled at him to get his hands out from underneath his body.  I get the reason why, but could be a little difficult when 3 guys just tackled you.

There is a lot about this situation that seemed just wrong to me.  I feel that it was the right thing to do to call the police, and it gives me no sense of peace to know that I have a neighbor, who when extremely drunk will place his firearm in odd places around his house.  He has a 9 year old boy and 2 year old girl.  It seems to me that this gun should be locked away, at all times.  And if drinking makes you unlock it, you probably shouldn’t be drinking.  However, what struck me is how the situation seemed to escalate as a result of the police action.

The neighbor wasn’t threatening anybody with the gun, so the police had no reason to believe that the guy was wanting to use the gun to enact violence on anybody.  And then there was the yelling.  To my knowledge I don’t have any anxiety issues.  I was sober, but when that cop was shouting, I felt very tense.  I felt my heart rate increase.  I was so sure that somebody was going to get shot, because it seemed very imminent.  I’ll admit that I don’t know how police are trained, and maybe this shouting is effective, but it’s hard to believe that it’s the case.  Even though I wasn’t being yelled at I found myself getting upset…wishing he would calm down…I felt adversarial, I felt threatened.  And when you feel threatened, when your scared, when your panic and someone is screaming at you, it just seems so easy to make a mistake, or make a move that might be defensive but is not calmly putting your hands up, exposing yourself even more clearly to a person (let alone 6 people) with a gun aimed at you.  Maybe I’ve been impacted by the media about police shootings, I don’t know, but it just doesn’t seem like what the cops were doing wasn’t the best way to diffuse the situation.    If you’ve ever just had someone scream angrily at you before, you will know that calmly surrendering isn’t most obvious choice on your mind at that point.  Add in some drugs, alcohol, anxiety issues, mental illness, etc, and it just seems like you have a dangerous situation that maybe didn’t have to become dangerous.

I am not trying to minimize the stress and danger of a cops job, and I am certainly not trying to defend a drunken neighbor with a shotgun either.  I didn’t see what the neighbor was doing, I only saw and heard the cops on the street from my line of sight, so maybe the neighbor was being very threatening.  It’s just that the whole situation just didn’t seem right from start to finish.  From why a neighbor would need to bring his hunting rifle out when he wasn’t hunting, to the swarm of cops with rifles and the amount of shouting.  I am thankful that no shots were fired, but it just seems clear to me how even when there are a bunch of good guys with guns and a whole lot of tension, somebody can easily be hurt.

Anger, Fear, and Guns

Once again another mass murder brings up the debate on gun control, and unproductive discussions full of straw man arguments fly.  As I write this I am sitting in Edmonton, Canada where I grew up.  As a Canadian I have a hard time understanding pro-gun arguments, and I think it’s safe to say this would be true for a lot of Canadians and people in many other western countries.  In light of all the gun related deaths and mass shootings in the U.S. it is unfathomable to a lot of us why this right to bear arms is so important compared to other things like health care or education which many people don’t see as rights.  Two things that have the ability to greatly increase your chance of survival not only individually, but collectively as a society.  Such things many people have simply turned their backs on.  Other individual freedoms like the right to privacy have been openly exposed by Edward Snowden.  The outrage minimal, and Edward Snowden is labeled a traitor.  Things like income inequality, fair and democratic voting processes are sometimes discussed but little happens.  This simply adds to why many of us from other countries are simply confounded and don’t understand.

And believe me, I am trying.  If there is one thing you have convinced me of about America, is that any sort of ban on guns will not solve any problems, at least in a major way.  In some countries this might be the case, but not in America.  As many pundits decried after Sandy Hook, if the shooting of elementary school children is not enough to convince anybody that we have a national crisis and that maybe we have to revisit the applicability of the 2nd amendment to this current day and age, nothing will.  I have rested on this conclusion for a little while now, and even wrote a blog piece before in which I ask the question about why, if we won’t give up our guns, can’t we fight for a society in which we don’t need them?  It is along those lines that I want to write about again today, but perhaps looking at it from a different tack.  Because I certainly want to talk about my views, but productively, and try to ask more questions, because I don’t know that I have a lot of answers.  I just know that I really want there to be less shootings and schools and other public venues.  More importantly I want to ask questions that perhaps change thinking and can change culture.  Because I don’t think any true progress on the gun issue can happen unless there is a change in attitude about them.

America has a lot of fear.  While I also groan somewhat at Michael Moore’s overplay to the emotional in his films, his documentary Bowling for Columbine had a central thesis, and that wasn’t about the banning of guns, but that is about us living in a culture of fear.  When you debate about guns with people that are pro-gun, overwhelmingly their best arguments boil down to protection from violent criminals, but also to protection from a tyrannical government.  The very intent, we are told, for the 2nd amendment. Fear can sometimes be a sensible state to live in, if those fears are real.  Are they in this case?  In 2009 it was discovered that of the approximately 15,000 homicides, only 1900 were committed by an actual stranger.  This tends to be true for other violent crimes as well.  It’s people you know.  It isn’t because they broke into your home.  You let them in.  The Pulse shooter was a regular and had passed through the doors many times.  They know you.  Know something about your habits.  Killers pick the time and the place, the chances of you being ready to defend yourself are small.

In terms of protection from the government, well it’s understandable this was a concern of our founding fathers given what they went through.  How applicable is that today?  We know of course many countries that have far less guns, who have less murders and their governments have not rolled over them.  For instance the Netherlands has had between 0.8-1 homicides per 100,000 people (any method) for the past decade.  This country has only 3.9 guns per 100 people.  Such restrictive gun laws have been in effect for at least 20 years and to my knowledge the government has not attacked it’s people. There are of course other similar examples of low gun numbers, low homicide rates and restrictive gun laws without having a tyrannical government.  Are those governments waiting to strike?  Why don’t those governments roll over their unarmed citizens?  Why aren’t the citizens more worried and fighting to gain more access to guns?  Are they fools?  What is different about them and us?  And if they seem content with a lot less guns even when they are unhappy with their government is that an attitude we can learn too.  In talking with a number of people who have served in the military they are rarely happy with their government, Republican or Democratic, and have said to me explicitly that if they were ever asked to turn their guns on the people by the government, they would turn their guns on the government and not the people.  The military are not mercenaries, they are made up of us.  They are trying to protect us.  Why would they aim at us?  The trust you don’t have for your government is the same mistrust the people who make up our armed forces have.  So when you say you need your guns as protection from tyranny you are really saying you don’t trust your military.  Even if these horror of a government were to convince the military to turn guns on the people, of course guns wouldn’t come into play anytime soon.  There would be bombs from planes and drones, tanks rolling through the street, and long range missiles.  Given how armed the citizens are, it seems like the most sensible strategy.  Because among all those military people with guns come people with a lot of training, and experience in strategy.  And the government knows where weapons are being stockpiled by the citizens.  They are coming to destroy your stash first.

But let’s try and go a little deeper.  It seems to me that there is a feeling among those who are pro-gun rights that there is inevitability to certain things.  Governments will eventually always turn on the people.  Criminals will always be plentiful.  I am always in danger from unknown assailants and I need my guns.  To me it is this inevitability that seems to be most damning evidence to this culture of fear.  While no society is without criminals there are societies with a lot less.  While there are no societies without homicides there are ones that have a lot less.  While there are governments that attack their people, there are others that do not.  So we have plenty of examples of how we can change for the better.  What is the attitude and culture of those countries that make them safer from their government and each other?  When you know someone who is doing things in a better way, don’t you usually try and do it that way too?  This is at the heart of what I do not understand.  Even if these fears represent a real in present danger why would we not strive for a society where we live in less fear?  It requires no change to gun laws or the 2nd amendment.  You would simply find that your gun would be sitting in a closet unused as it does in Switzerland.  The oft used example of the safe country with plenty of guns.  Those guns though come from mandatory military service, and they generally sit unloaded in closets by those men and women after they serve.  Nobody is carrying them into the Swiss version of 7/11.

How much damage can an angry person with a knife do, compared to an angry person with a gun?  I hope everybody would agree the latter will do more.  The conversation about guns often focuses on the latter.  It assumed that liberals are thinking that by removing the gun, anger goes away, and it is possible that some liberals think that.  They would of course be incorrect.  Just like there are many societies with low gun numbers, low homicides, and restrictive laws, there are also many nations with restrictive laws, high gun numbers and high homicides.  What are the factors that make those more violent societies? They also seem to have angry people, and angry people with guns.  Our initial question indicates two problems.  Angry people, and angry people with guns.  However both those problems, as you’ll not have something in common. If you could make people less angry, whether or not that person has a gun becomes irrelevant.  And so I agree with the oft used argument that guns don’t kill people, people do.  The problem is people with guns, when they get angry, can do a lot more damage.  Taking away guns won’t reduce the number of angry people just the amount of hurt they can cause.  We can’t treat the problem like it’s all or nothing, if we can reduce deaths we should be doing that shouldn’t we?  But I’m with the pro-gun people, I’d prefer not to take away people’s guns, I’d rather work on the problem of how to make less angry people.  There are solutions to this.  There are examples of societies that have less of them.  There are studies about what factors lead to more peaceful societies.  It’s a challenging road, it means making a lot of other personal changes, but if you think keeping your guns is important those are your options.  Fight for that society that gets the heart of the problem that causes people to want to kill other people.  Don’t just throw your hands up and say it can’t be done.  We know better.

Finally let’s ask an even more fundamental question.  What are the grounds in which we should end someone’s existence?  Trespassing?  Burglary? Being suspected of a crime? Acting suspiciously?  Not listening to the police?  In debates over gun control issues with people you hear a lot about people deserving today.  “He should have listened to the cops instead of running away”, “If anybody steps foot into my house in the middle of the night I’ll shoot him dead”.  In Arizona a lady shot at a car that had children in it for simply turning around in her driveway.  In a country with due process, with guns we suddenly all get to become judge, jury, and executioner all at once.  In an excellent video about how we can arrive at morality through scientific means over divine guidance, they talk about why we have gradation of punishment in society for crimes.  Why for instance do we not punish rapists (a horrible crime) with the death sentence?  I honestly never thought about it before. Rape of course is an absolutely horrific crime.  The reason is, that if you are already going to be put to death for rape, you have nothing to lose really by killing your victim.  Your punishment can’t be made worse.  Imagine if all crimes were punishable by death.  Would this lead to a more orderly society, or a more violent one?  So if, as many claim, there is nothing we can do about criminals.  If we now arm everyone to the point where criminals now feel any crime they commit is likely to lead to them being shot, what is the response of the criminal mind?  Does the criminal let fear prevent them from doing the crime, or does the criminal simply increase their own arsenal when committing crimes?  Do the criminals not become more deadly instead of committing crimes less frequently?

Given the amount of guns in the U.S., we should be the most orderly society, but we are not.  So once again, I agree that there have to be other factors that lead to a more orderly society with less violent crime.  Can we not all agree to fight for those things?  Can we listen to our sociologists, mental health experts, people who study deviant behavior? Can we all work together to de-stigmatized mental illness? Can we all fight against poverty and income inequality?  Can we demand a media that doesn’t sensationalize and misrepresent statistics to attract viewers, but actually informs and covers issues objectively and reasonably?  Can we all fight for a government that has politicians that don’t try to make you feel afraid to win your votes?  They give you things to fear, give vague solutions on how they are going to make the fear go away, but they never do.  If one side is so naïve as to removing guns from the equations is the answer, then you also have to take responsibility for suggesting that more guns is the answer either.  If you are going to say having your gun is important, and that it is your right, then ethically if you have compassion, and care about living in a society with less death and violence you must fight for all these other things.  You must research solutions to how we create a society, like many that exist currently, with less angry people (whether they have guns or not).  Your evolutionary advantage is not your ability to shoot a firearm.  It’s your brain.  If you can’t see that increasing happiness in society is a more effective means of keep you and other safer then you yourself are a victim of the same fear that ends too many lives.

Striving for a better world where you can keep your guns

An article I read recently has helped me admit the truth in regards to gun control.  There is truly no tragedy bad enough for us to reform our gun laws.  So be it.  It is a tiresome debate to be sure, and so I wanted to approach it from a different perspective.   In fact accepting the fact that people want their guns in this country has helped me ask questions that I might never have asked.  So let’s begin.

Let us accept as fact that guns are the best way to ensure safety in the U.S. today, which is full of criminals and people who want to hurt you.  Or in other words there are bad guys with guns; you need to be a good guy with a gun.  I don’t deny that there are far more good guys with guns than bad.   Okay, so you need this gun, whether it is to protect the people you love at home, or you might have to stop a bad guy with a gun in a public place.  I hope that it is not too much of an assumption to say that neither side of the gun control debate wants to have crazy people invading their homes or pointing guns in public places wanting to cause harm to others.  If you feel you need a gun in the world we live in now, that’s fine, but wouldn’t you like the world to get better?  Wouldn’t it be nice to be in a world where you didn’t need that gun?  Because let’s face it, a crazy person with a gun wanting to harm people is a stressful situation.  Somebody is likely to get hurt anyway before that person can be stopped, and the fright of a crazy person with a gun breaking into your home and being shot in your living room is an ugly sight to all who live there and can be traumatic, even if you were to just scare the intruder away with your gun.   So would it be safe to say that all would like to live in a safer world in which a gun wasn’t necessary?  It seems reasonable.  Again nobody physically wants to take your gun away.  I personally have no problems with guns staying in boxes in the corner of your basement, collecting dust because there is never an occasion to use it.  Even soldiers at war look forward to a time when they can lay down their weapons and not have to use them again.

Let us also accept the fact that there will always be criminals.  This is probably true also.  But is it true that crime levels are the same everywhere?  Of course it isn’t.  There are places with less crime, less homicides, and in some cases a stunningly low amount of guns. Now if we removed the U.S., which is a statistical outlier in terms of gun ownership, we might find that some of the countries with higher gun ownership (still less than half of the U.S. average gun ownership) have low crime.  If such societies exist then it seems that we would want to learn about what that society has done to lower crime, especially violent crime, so much.   Perhaps it is non-restrictive gun laws, but if gun ownership is 20-30 per 100 people, there are still a large number of people unarmed who could be taken advantage of by a bad guy with a gun, so the answer to their lower crime can’t be entirely gun ownership.   And this is aligned with what gun rights activists say, which is that gun control is not a means to make society safe.  So given that there are other countries that are safer, shouldn’t we be trying to achieve this type of society and trying to understand why they are safe?

What we’d probably find is that such societies have low economic inequality, good health care, emphasize education and have a high degree of education equality in all of its schools and universities.  Non-


restrictive gun ownership laws are likely to be only a partial answer to the solution.  The NRA lobbies to make sure gun ownership laws remain unrestricted.  They see it as sensible to make sure society is safe.  That being said, why isn’t the NRA also one of the biggest lobbies for quality education? Why are they not helping schools in low income areas getting better equipment and teachers to help people in those communities raise themselves out of their poverty?  Why aren’t they pushing for more funding to universities to lower tuition and public debt?  Why aren’t they using their vast wealth from supporters to create research grants for more research into mental illness?  Why aren’t they pushing for educational programs in schools that might help people recognize the signs early of mentally and emotionally unwell children, who when these problems go unaddressed, grow up into teens or adults who have the potential for violent behavior?  Why aren’t they pushing for better education about drug use and alcohol while decriminalizing, at the very least, marijuana which gives so much of the population a criminal record impacting their chance for future economic stability?  Don’t we want to live in a country where guns are not necessary?   Do we want our Generals in the military to be busy, or would we rather live in times of peace?

What seems strange to me is that it is mostly us naïve liberals who are constantly pushing for more money to education, health care, decriminalization of drugs (particularly marijuana), increased money to social services which help at risk youth, etc.  So I would like to formally say that I am willing to never speak of gun control again, if those who most vehemently support the 2nd amendment also take up the cause to live in a safer society.  You can still have your guns for when the government turns on you to attack you.  But just because society is unsafe, doesn’t mean we can’t strive for something better.  And there is better out there so let’s fight for that, instead of fighting over gun control.  Sound fair?




Correlation vs. Causation

I decided to write a response to one of the many excellent posts written by a fellow blogger.  It became long enough and I thought a worthy enough to be a blog post of it’s own!  If you are interested in the idea of correlation vs. causation you can read his blog here first.

In your last paragraph I was reminded of Dawkins’ argument in the God Delusion when he is talking about miracles.  Since miracles are by definition unique and rare events there is no way to really disprove a divine explanation.  This is of course if the same thing doesn’t keep happening again and again, which if it does, you really don’t have a miracle on your hands anymore.  He uses the example of the one documented miracle in Catholicism in which some 100,000 witness near Fatima, Portugal reported the Sun doing some odd things including zigzagging towards them and crashing to the Earth.  Dawkins argues that in looking for a natural explanation for the event, all of them, including the possibility that all 100,000 people are lying are actually more probable than the laws of physics being thwarted for a group of people in one part of the world (no other people reported seeing anything other than those at the event).  So I think that you are very correct that we the “correlation does not mean causation” argument does not negate a particular postulation for why a correlation exists.   However I would go a step further and say that it is not even an argument in of itself.

It is of course the responsibility of anybody who poses a correlation to provide a reason why such a correlation exists.  Provided you have done that, then the “correlation does not mean causation” response isn’t a logical argument in response to yours.  The person on the other side of the debate must either address why your reasons why are not valid, or must present something else that correlates better and why their reason for x causing y is more probable.  So I think you might be giving a little too much weight to the argument in how much it actually negates a correlation between two variables.

In many areas in science we can say why pretty easily because there are usually physical laws that explain why quite easily, and those things are testable and repeatable.  In social science this may be harder to do.  Especially since it is not always clear what all the variables are.  For instance it is clear that there is a positive correlation between gun deaths (accidental, homicide, and suicides) the amount of guns per capita in a population.  There are plenty of psychological factors of course to consider here on why would a person own a gun or why would someone choose to kill themselves?  There are practical questions like how to we get people to be more responsible about locking up their guns so their kid doesn’t pick it up, how to we make sure that more people remember to store their guns unloaded, how can make guns safer from accidental misfires, and how can we make sure that people who buy again are well trained in how to use it? There are likely even bigger questions like how does income disparity lead to increased crime in general? What are other ways that don’t involve firearms where people can be made safe?  All of these and plenty more are likely part and parcel of explaining gun violence, but that doesn’t change the fact that reducing access to guns would result a lowering of the number of gun deaths.  So making some laws that create a national gun registry, that do better background checks, and limit the type of weapon the general public could buy, would make some sense even though it clearly won’t eliminate gun deaths completely.  If by a counter-argument someone says “correlation does not mean causation” they haven’t actually addressed the argument being made.  They actually have to find an example with all other variables relatively constant between the U.S. and that country, except gun control laws, and show that an opposite correlation exists. i.e. Restrictive gun control laws and increased gun deaths, or high gun ownership and low gun deaths.  And that would be for a country with similar economies, democratic, with a high standard of living, and that doesn’t have mandatory military service in which the high amount of gun ownership isn’t because they keep their piece given to them in the military (Switzerland the example always used here).

So in the classic humorous example that has been around for awhile is that graph between global temperature and the number of pirates.  I can’t just show that graph and say see…look how the number of pirates is impacting global temperature?  I actually have to provide a reason why pirates might impact temperatures.  I can say there is less plundering and razing of towns so the urban heat island effect has increased thus raising global


temperatures.  Obviously this is a silly argument, but a response of “correlation and causation are different”, while a true statement, does not negate my assertion.  There are many ways to disprove my assertion but pointing out a correlation is not causation does not. Because the truth is, “correlation does not always mean causation” so one has to go past this statement to further argue one’s point.  This is true for many arguments that contain logical fallacies.  You could take the classic argument used against gay marriage.  Well if we let gays marry, pretty soon we’ll have to let people marry their pets.  Well this is of course the slippery slope logical fallacy.  Slippery slope arguments may not be incorrect, but are very often wrong.  So it’s not enough for me to counter your slippery slope argument with “Hey that’s a slippery slope argument”.  I would be quite wrong to think the argument was done, because they could actually be right.  Some events do lead to a chain of events that are far from where things started.  To win the argument I would actually need to argue that there has never been a push for legislation to marry a pet, that if anybody has tried this they were a crazy person, that this is not a psychological drive of human beings as a species, etc.  I could also point to many other marriage related laws or other laws that have not led to a hyperbolic slippery slope situations.

To say that “correlation and causation are not necessarily the same thing” is actually a Straw Man argument (which is fallacious) because the argument assumes a position that you have not taken in the argument.  Correlating variables is a valid method for discovering relationships, and by presenting that correlation, one’s assertion is not that correlation is a valid method, but rather that two variables are related to each other.  And to say two things are correlated doesn’t imply that this is the only important variable, or that even it is the primary or secondary cause of a particular event.  One has simply said there is a relationship and a counter argument must challenge the relationship.  A correlation must be presented along with some sound reasons why there is a correlation, and an argument in response must challenge those reasons.  The art of argumentation isn’t easy and few people can actually argue well. 🙂

Valuing Life: Death Part II

One of the unexpected things that happened when I realized that I was an atheist was that I began to have a greater respect for life.  I know the existence of an afterlife cannot be disproven, but neither can it be proven and so if this is the only existence we have, and death means non-existence, then appreciating this existence is paramount.  I know that being atheist isn’t a pre-requisite for an appreciation for existence, but that’s just how it happened for me (not that I was ever in support of violence).   I realize also that I am in an economic position in life to enjoy it much more than others but it is often surprising to me how often poor people are happier and more generous than those with wealth.  There is something to the old adage “Take joy in the simple things in life”.  Nevertheless there are those beyond just being poor.  Countless millions who do not get their daily need for food and water met.  If one values life then it should be our first and foremost goal to lift all those up to enjoy the marvels of existence.

When someone says they value life, it is often unclear what they mean.  First of all, what do we define as life?  Some people just seem to mean human life.   Some value other animals as well.  For some it is just certain animals that we think of as pets, but not ones that we use for food.  This tends to vary by culture.  Some value the life of animals, provided that they die without suffering and are treated


humanely in their life.  Some value the life of an animal based on how close to a human it is, and are okay with ending the life of simpler creatures.  Finally some value all animals and only eat vegetables.  Why is plant life less important?  Should feelings, or the fact that they are part of Kingdom Animalia at all be the deciding factor on how valuable life is?  As I have argued before that whenever we put value on life just because of its similarity to us, there is a certain human conceit there that I am not so sure is healthy.

For those that value human life, even that is inconsistent.  It is clear that we humans have a different line of reasoning when it comes to the harming of those that we deem innocent.  People often get much more outraged at a mistreated animal, or the abortion of a fetus, than a mistreated adult.     But we were all children once.  A child who is taught to hate minorities will become an adult who hates minorities.  If that adult commits a hate crime, why do we hate him back, call for his punishment, or even death.   In reality he is simply just an older child who was never taught to see the value in all people and that we are all brothers and sisters on this planet.  It is akin to me being upset at someone for not knowing calculus.  How could they if they were never taught?  It always seems to be assumed that as an adult we have choices to just change the way we think in an instant.  This is clearly not true, and in fact it gets harder as you get older, not easier.


The biggest paradox I see for those people who are both “pro-life” in relation to abortion, is that they tend to be conservative in their views on capital punishment, war, and gun control.   Abortion is a tough issue, no question, and one where I truly understand the “pro-life” point of view.  What is clear to me is that no legislation should force a woman to go through something that profoundly effects her body, and for which there is no such equivalent or societal requirement on the father.  And the cold reality of the matter is; mothers ending the lives of their infants are a natural part of our psychology.  It is uncomfortable to accept such a cold fact as this, partially because it almost makes no sense in a modern society.  It is important to remember though that most of our evolution did not take place in civilization, but in the wild.  And in the wild resources are often scarce and raising a child, as anybody even today will admit, takes a lot of resources.  So in our brains when we feel like the child is not going to be able to get the support it needs, women will make the logical choice of abortion.  There is some logic to it.  Yes I said it.  Our brains are not programmed for birth control; our brains are not programmed for a society in which adoption is possible.  In the end, our world is the one right in front of us and in that moment ending an unwanted pregnancy is sensible.  This is why abortion rates are lowest in countries with adequate health care for all citizens, especially mothers, easy access to birth control, and plenty of education about sex and the consequences thereof.   Then of course there is the issue of whether a fetus counts as life, counts as human?  I don’t think that it can be answered anytime soon.  All I know is that it is not my place to decide what happens to an embryo inside a womb in the first 15 weeks of pregnancy.


But if I weep for an aborted baby, then why do I not weep for all those people killed in war, shot down by gun violence, sent to the electric chair, or for even that matter the 20,000 people who die every day from hunger.  The answer comes down to the fact that killing is serious business and we have to justify it.  Perhaps abortion is just killing that we have justified.  But then it is no less immoral than any other killing that we find acceptable.  If we can justify abortion based on the grounds that it is not a child so early in development, then is it not the same reasoning we use for any other type of killing we support and even call for?  It comes down to dehumanizing people.  Whether it’s Muslims, criminals, poor people, minorities…whenever we say that any human life has less value then our own you will find things like abuse, torture, and killing.  Dehumanizing at a fundamental level involves two things.  First is the stripping away of things like the individuality of a person (i.e.  All Muslims hate Americans).  Secondly it focuses on making out their desires to always be about negative things.  Things that we consider the worst qualities of humanity or just the opposition of the virtues that we value most highly in our species.   So we can say “All Muslims hate freedom”, rather than suggesting that they are more like us than different, and that all Muslims want is to have a livelihood, take care of their families and have self-determination in their lives.  Something we all want.

This same reasoning can be applied to how many people think of the poor, other races, political affiliations, criminals, etc.  It concerns me that in this country that there seems to be a decreasing value placed on life.  The Travyon Martin case exemplifies this all too well.  Not just about his murder (it is at the very least manslaughter) itself but by the “Stand Your Ground” law.  If being threatened is enough to justify killing another human being then I think we need to seriously address this philosophy in our society.  Something must have gone wrong somewhere for such a law to even be proposed. Should someone’s existence end for stealing a television set?  There was a recent story about a woman who shot at a car for turning around near her driveway.  There were 4 children in the car and children could have been shot.  Luckily the bullets only hit the car.  The woman’s explanation was that her driveway was getting ruined because people were turning around on it all the time.  What does it say about our society when something so trivial as a driveway takes precedence over life?


As far as we know it, death is the very end.  Even if it isn’t, this existence must have value or we would not be born into it.   We must therefore question ALL killing.  We must be forgiving and believe in redemption.  We must look at a human as a product of his experiences rather than a creature who always has the power to make conscious choices to do acts of good and evil.  This planet teems with life and we are connected to it all.  Nothing that lives has more right to life than anything else, and yet killing is also natural whether it is for food or for protection.  As a species we have the ability to kill with the strength and power like no other species, but we also have the equal ability to find alternatives to killing.  The latter should always be our goal.  We should be continually striving to find ways to survive that do not deny the right to life of others even if killing happens along the way.